Josh Carter, over at the Bioethics.com blog, comments on the editorial in the April 10th issue of Nature, (subscription only. Joe quoted some but let me know if you need the full text) which uses news of a transgendered (but not transexual) pregnant and bearded woman to ask the age-old question, what is “natural” and whether “natural” is better than “un-natural.”
What do you want to bet that the author prefers “natural” fibers for his clothes and “organic,” when it comes to groceries? We know that the editorial board has opinions on the good and bad, since the cover of the April 3 issue in front of me has the headline, “Carbon emissions: it’s worse than you thought.”
Even though the question couldn’t have been asked quite this way in the past, Nature asks one of the oldest philosophical questions. Unfortunately, they ask in a juvenile manner. In fact, they beg the question by stating that the approved purpose is to “enhance the human condition.”
(As I commented on the Bioethics.com blog) The “natural” uses of medicine and science seek to discover and use our discoveries to encourage, enhance, and/or return to optimal what Aristotle called the “telos,” the “what it is meant to be.” For instance, a splint reduces pain and holds the limb in physiological position as it heals. Hip replacements, glasses and hearing aids aren’t normally intended to give you the ability to jump higher or stronger, see with the sight of an eagle or hear a pin drop in the next county — they are used in an attempt to return your functioning to “normal.”
The most active debates in science today are actually discussions about the “nature” of the thing we are studying or manipulating. Is global climate change causing the Earth to heat up more than is “natural,” is it man-made (due to those carbon emissions), or cyclical, etc. Should there be regulation on abortions to for sex-selection or to choose for deafness? Who gets the resources to be the Six
MillionTrillion Dollar Woman and why not allow men and women to demand that their limbs be cut off or that their faces be botoxed and surgeried into a human caricature that scares children?
Again, we see the problem with setting up the ethics hierarchy so that “autonomy” trumps “non-maleficence.” “I want” ethics over “First, do no harm.”
Is there good in the telos, or is there any standard for dividing funding and power in science and medicine? If there aren’t good and bad uses of science and medicine, then “Anything goes,” if you can get the financing, the power, or the ability to do it.
Edited 5/10/13 for formatting problems — BBN